Marie Bonaparte
Marie Bonaparte; drawing by David Levine

Some years ago I read the first volume of Marie Bonaparte’s autobiography, A la Mémoire des disparus (1953), which ended with her marriage to Prince George of Greece in 1907. The narrative—1,004 pages in all—struck me as one of the most absorbing memoirs I had ever read. It is the story of a lonely girl brought up in an atmosphere of suspicion, lovelessness, and aspirations to grandeur. I longed to read the second volume, which purportedly contained an account of her analysis with Freud and her efforts to save him from the Nazis, but I was unable to trace a copy of it.

I then went on to read her five copybooks, written between the ages of seven and ten, but wholly forgotten until she discovered them when she went through family papers after her father’s death in 1924; and I continued my investigations into the part she played in the founding of the French psychoanalytic movement and her role in the stormy events after the war when Jacques Lacan resigned from the Paris Society.

It occurred to me that a fascinating biography could be written of this woman. When I discussed the matter with Anna Freud in late 1979, she told me that the second volume of the autobiography was “totally inaccessible.” She didn’t specify its location. She added that a biography could be written only when the people concerned wanted it to be written. Since difficulties usually accompany the writing of biography, I simply went my own way. I read as much as I could, made numerous trips to Paris, meeting both there and in London with as many analysts as possible who knew or had worked with the princess or who had written on the history of the psychoanalytic movement. Almost all of these people were generous and cooperative, although some were outspoken in expressing the view that they did not think her intellectual stature was sufficient to warrant the time and attention required for a serious book, despite the important part she had played in Freud’s life.

Among the first questions one asks when embarking on a biography are where are the papers deposited, and who owns the copyright. I learned of the restrictive embargo on Freud’s papers in the Library of Congress. I then wrote to its manuscript division, which I had found remarkably helpful in the past. I subsequently received a letter from the acting chief, dated August 29, 1980:

I enclose a complimentary photocopy of the register of Marie Bonaparte’s papers. You will see that, according to the wishes of the donor, access to the collection is totally restricted until the year 2020.

There are Bonaparte materials in the Sigmund Freud Collection, but these are in the portion of the collection which is totally restricted, again according to the wishes of the donors for varying lengths of time.

He enclosed a list of the holdings, prefaced by the following:

The papers of Princess Marie Bonaparte (1888-1962)1 came to the Library of Congress in 1964 through Miss Anna Freud, the gift of Princess Marie.

Literary rights in the unpublished writings of Marie Bonaparte in these papers, and in other collections of papers in the custody of the Library of Congress, have not been dedicated to the public. Access to these papers is entirely restricted until the year 2020.

The scope of the collection is so impressive that I feel its description should be quoted in full.

The papers of Princess Marie Bonaparte are a vivid illumination of her life, from 1913 to 1961, both externally (through the 5,000 pages of her memoirs and journals) and internally (in the 29 notebooks which document her analysis with Dr. Sigmund Freud and the notes of her dreams which she recorded for twenty years).

There are typescript copies of 250 letters exchanged with the French diplomat Aristide Briand during the years 1914-31. The greater part of her correspondence, however, consists of about 600 holograph letters received from Dr. Sigmund Freud, with whom she studied and whose principal works she translated, and copies of an equal number of her replies.

The papers contain the manuscripts of two of the Princess’ published works, A la mémoire des disparus (which chronicles all her life and era) and Cinq cahiers écrits par une petite fille (which are written between her seventh and tenth year). There are also a number of shorter works, many of which are autobiographical.

The focus of the collection is Marie Bonaparte’s interest in the field of psychoanalysis. A leading figure in psychoanalysis in France, she was for many years a member of the Central Executive Committee of the International Psychoanalytical Association.

Unwilling to abandon such rich material, I wrote again to the manuscript division, inquiring whether there were any circumstances under which the papers could be examined, and received the following reply, dated October 15, 1980:


The applicable term of the bequest of the Marie Bonaparte Papers which governs restriction is Princess Marie’s written stipulation that “nobody can consult them before the year 2020.” The Library agreed to this restriction in order to preserve the papers for scholarship, and of course, we must treat all applicants equally according to this agreement. [Italics mine.]

I realized that I was up against an impenetrable wall, and turned my attention elsewhere.

Now, two years later, a biography of Marie Bonaparte by Celia Bertin has been published. On turning to the sources to which she has had access, to my astonishment I found that again and again she quotes from the letters of Aristide Briand, from Marie Bonaparte’s unpublished manuscripts, from the record of her analysis with Freud, and from the journal material listed as classified by the Library of Congress. One curious fact struck me. It is customary in scholarly works to state the location of unpublished material from which one is quoting, but in this book it is never recorded. The only reference Bertin makes to unpublished material is a brief comment about the princess’s activities in 1951.

Anna [Freud] like her father urged Marie to write about herself. Marie decided to deposit the manuscript of the last volumes of her memoirs in the Freud Archives in the Library of Congress in Washington. She liked the idea of writing for readers who would have access to uncensored letters of Freud’s in the year 2030 [sic].

The acknowledgements do not throw much light on the mystery.

My thanks and gratitude [she writes] go first to H.R.H. Princess Eugénie of Greece [daughter of Marie Bonaparte], who not only provided the abundance of documents and copies of manuscripts without which this work would not have been possible, but also graciously authorized the use of them and guided my research.

Later she writes: “Grateful acknowledgement is made to Sigmund Freud Copyrights Ltd. for permission to print the letters of Sigmund Freud to Dr. René Laforgue and also the Freud letters to Marie Bonaparte.”

The mystery deepens. Bertin says that she has been working on the book for five years. Did the Library of Congress know of this when I was told that “of course, we must treat all applicants equally according to this agreement”? Such knowledge would constitute such a monstrous breach of faith with the community of scholars that it is unthinkable.

But what is one to make of the Sigmund Freud Copyrights Ltd. whose editorial consultant was, until her death in October, Anna Freud? Or of the Freud Archives in New York which is responsible for depositing masses of Freud material in the Library of Congress, all of it restricted until varying dates after the year 2000? Has the Library of Congress, in assiduously following the letter of the law, been made an innocent dupe? The embargo on the Freud material in the Library of Congress—surely the longest in recorded history—has been the subject of mounting criticism from scholars. This particular case raises important issues about the nature of copyright and the terms on which a library accepts a bequest. If copies were made of the Bonaparte material before it was deposited in the Library of Congress, does this lessen the value of the material accepted by the Library? Does it affect tax deductions? Have the donors the right to allow selected writers to quote from the material? Even if they have this privilege, surely it should not be extended without prior consultation with the library that has accepted the restricted material; otherwise, doubt is thrown upon the integrity of the library that has agreed to abide by the stipulations of the original agreement. An additional problem should be considered. If a selected writer has been given access to examine certain material which is withheld from other scholars, how can accuracy or interpretation be checked until the embargo is lifted in 2020?

What has Bertin done with the rich material that was apparently available to her? Lacking Marie Bonaparte’s literary gifts she gallops through the life, without much concern for its historical and cultural setting. Marie Bonaparte was the great-granddaughter of Lucien Bonaparte, the younger brother of Napoleon. The Bonapartes were arrivistes, not regarded as aristocrats by the French nobility. Apart from their lowly origins, they were an unsavory lot. Lucien incurred his brother’s displeasure by marrying a commoner. Lucien’s son Pierre—a murderer—married the daughter of a foundry worker. In turn, Pierre’s son Roland (Marie’s father) married the granddaughter of a cobbler. The calculating “Princess Pierre,” Marie’s grandmother, arranged her son’s marriage to the heiress of the founder of the casino at Monte Carlo. Marie’s mother died shortly after her birth; and throughout her childhood Marie heard rumors from the servants that her father and grandmother had plotted her mother’s death in order to secure her fortune.


Never properly educated lest she lose her marriage chances, Marie was married off to Prince George of Greece, whose forebears, obscure German princelings, were scarcely more distinguished than her own. Not long after her marriage she discovered, that her husband had a homosexual passion for his uncle.

Marie then entered into a series of liaisons, the most notorious of which was with Aristide Briand, eleven times premier of France. Bertin describes this as “a neurotic affair,” but it is not clear what she means by this. One suggestion is that Marie’s promiscuity was related to her inability to achieve orgasm, yet she seemed capable of arousing passion in men.

In 1924, while sitting at her dying father’s bedside, she read Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. When Prince Roland died, she discovered the five copybooks in which she had recorded dreams and fantasies, which were narrated in childlike free association and described in drawings. Even though she wrote them between the ages of seven and ten she had, she later said, complete amnesia about their existence. After finding the books she determined to go to Vienna to be analyzed by Freud.

Arrangements were made through René Laforgue, who told Freud that the princess suffered from “a rather pronounced obsessional neurosis.” For three years she made an annual pilgrimage to Vienna, despite the strenuous objections of her husband and children, who felt neglected by her absorption in her analysis. A bond was immediately established between Marie and Freud. She showed him her breast. “I am seventy,” he told her. “I was in good health, but there are a few little things that don’t work any more…. That is why I warn you: You mustn’t attach yourself too much to me.” (It is fascinating to conjecture what Bertin has omitted from this passage. What, in the name of the Library of Congress, was going on?) Marie’s analysis seems to have been unconventional: Freud agreed to see her for two hours every day; he discussed his personal life and his other patients with her; he allowed her to scribble during sessions; she dined with the Freud family daily.

Freud told her that her copybooks revealed that she had witnessed coitus when she was six months old (this she claims later to have verified). Since this is the only known occasion on which Freud analyzed material from drawings, one longs to read the notes Bonaparte took on how he came to this extraordinary conclusion. She later claimed to have verified Freud’s interpretation from a family groom who admitted that he and her nurse used to drug her with opiates when she was old enough to interrupt their activities. Freud’s interpretation of this early traumatic experience is remarkable, considering that in a footnote to the analysis of the Wolf-Man, he comments, in regard to the age when his patient first witnessed the primal scene: “The age of six months came under consideration as a far less probable, and indeed scarcely tenable alternative.”

Freud told her that he had lost all interest in life before he met her. Small wonder he was excited: she was a Bonaparte, and a rich one, and it seemed very likely that she would be able to establish psychoanalysis in France.

In 1926 the Americans were beginning to insist that only those who were medically qualified could practice psychoanalysis. That same year, during two evenings, Freud read aloud to Marie and his daughter Anna “The Question of Lay Analysis,” the essay he wrote on behalf of Theodore Reik, who was being prosecuted in Vienna as a quack. Both women were concerned parties since neither held a medical degree. It was necessary to legitimize lay analysis: Anna must have a profession, and Marie had a job ahead of her in France.

Marie provided most of the funds necessary for the establishment of the French Psycho-Analytic Institute, and she continued to play an important part in Freud’s life. She bought the Fliess correspondence and persuaded Freud that the letters should not be destroyed. She also raised what virtually amounted to a ransom to the Nazis to bring the Freud family out of Vienna in 1938.

Marie Bonaparte’s contributions to psychoanalytic thought were not substantial apart from her book on Edgar Allan Poe, which Bertin does not discuss. Her analysis of Poe, close textual criticism seeking unconscious themes in the stories, is comparable in its insights to Ernest Jones’s interpretation of Hamlet. A study remains to be done of her writing, including both her work on Poe and her autobiography. Her theories of female sexuality were idiosyncratic, and any attempt to make her into a forerunner of modern feminism is ludicrous. Bertin describes her as “a phallic woman,” but the implications of this are not pursued. While in analysis with Freud she underwent two operations to have her clitoris moved closer to her vagina. Bertin says that Freud “scolded” her for having the operations; and that she considered them the “end of the honeymoon with analysis.” The restricted papers would have to be examined to ascertain what the points of issue were between her and Freud. Why did she feel it necessary to go into analysis with Rudolph Loewenstein in 1932, an act which she considered a betrayal of Freud? During these years a debate was being waged among analysts about Freud’s “phallocentrism.” Freud’s own uncertainty in the matter is reflected in “Female Sexuality” (1931), an uncertainty which would not have aided Marie in solving her problems.

The sexual life [of women] is regularly divided into two phases, of which the first has a masculine character, while only the second is specifically feminine. Thus in female development there is a process of transition from the one phase to the other, to which there is nothing analogous in the male. A further complication arises from the fact that the clitoris, with its virile character, continues to function in later female life in a manner which is very variable and which is certainly not yet satisfactorily understood. We do not, of course, know the biological basis of these peculiarities in women; and still less are we able to assign them any teleological purpose.

Marie Bonaparte seems from Bertin’s account essentially to have been a dilettante; and her biographer has recorded with meticulous detail her attendance at royal weddings and funerals and the minutiae of her social life. Surely she was more than the sum of her activities, but the woman is presented here in unrelated fragments. Bertin tells us that her daughter and her secretary described her as unjust, but she does not explore this aspect of her character. Bertin also says that Freud told Bonaparte that she often sought revenge, but Bertin gives no example.

The most unsatisfactory pages of the book are those concerned with the psychoanalytic movement. We are given a picture of the princess lying on a chaise longue in her garden while conducting an analysis, but nothing is said of her scheming for power both in local and international psychoanalytic politics. In the complex struggles within the Paris Psychoanalytic Society, the princess changed sides whenever it suited her purpose. To ascribe all the problems of the French group to Jacques Lacan’s advocacy of short sessions, as Bertin does, is patently absurd. There is no reference to Sherry Turkle’s splendid book, which traces Lacan’s attempts to be reinstated in the International Psycho-Analytic Association, blocked effectively by Marie Bonaparte who had the undeviating support of Anna Freud and her followers.2

Those whom Bertin interviewed habitually described the princess as “generous” to psychoanalysis; but is generosity so meritorious if the donor has virtually unlimited funds and if, in a sense, psychoanalysis became her favorite charity? Indeed, apart from an occasional note of mockery, this is as unremittingly admiring a portrait as the recent biography of Anna Freud.3 Many analysts could have told Bertin that Marie Bonaparte was imperious, that she played the role of princess for all it was worth, and that she was capable of innumerable acts of rudeness. During the Paris congress in 1957, the president of the Paris Society, Sacha Nacht, with whom she was feuding at the time, entertained the analysts at a dinner of which the main course was canard à l’orange. After taking a couple of mouthfuls, the princess threw her knife and fork on her plate, proclaiming in a voice that could be heard at several tables, “Who could eat this?” Two nights later she herself gave a lavish dinner, served by liveried footmen and featuring a superb canard à l’orange. Celia Bertin, unfortunately, has given us a spicy but insubstantial hors d’oeuvre.

This Issue

December 16, 1982